The Butler Bulldogs started 8-0 for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Chris Holtmann has the Butler program trending majorly up after a rocky first season in the Big East in 2013-14. But instead of talking about wins and losses and rankings, I want to talk about how Holtmann has built on Butler's past success to make their program one of the best in the Big East. Don't believe me? Well take a look at the odds for Butler's neutral court game against the 9th-ranked Indiana Hoosiers in the sixth edition of the Crossroads Classic that tips on Saturday.
Holtmann has recently been displeased with his team's effort on the defensive end of late. He went so far as to shake up the starting lineup for the Bulldogs' most recent game against then 22nd-ranked Cincinnati by removing leading scorer Kelan Martin and senior guard Avery Woodson. Holtmann was coy after that game, which resulted in a 10-point victory of the AAC's top team, but he clearly was trying to send a message.
And that's sort of the point I'm trying to get across. Holtmann, who was originally an assistant coach in Butler's first season in the Big East -- one that ended up with a 15-17 overall record and a 9th place finish in the new league -- and then the interim head coach that next season, feels so comfortable only 3 years removed from being a seat down on the very same Bulldog bench shows that he's very comfortable with where he's at right now.
Brian Snow did a story for SI.com earlier this month in which Holtmann discussed "The Butler Way" and "A Butler Guy" as it relates to how he and his staff recruit. Clearly Butler basketball was already a program built on the back of many very good coaches, including Brad Stevens. But to ignore the role that Holtmann has played in the success of a school in transition after leaving the Horizon and the Atlantic 10 in a matter of two seasons to join the newly reformed Big East would be wrong. As he said to Snow in that article, "my second year, when I was the interim head coach, we finished second in the Big East with kids mostly recruited to play in the Horizon League. That showed us with the right kids we can win."
Since taking the reigns, Butler has recruited very well under Holtmann. The current group of freshman seems to have a star in their midst in Kamar Baldwin who got his first career start in place of Woodson against Cincinnati. The 2017 class of committed recruits is currently ranked 18th nationally by 247Sports and includes three top-100 players in Jerald Butler (54th), Kyle Young (82nd) and Christian David (92nd). Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program and Holtmann seems to have done a good job, on paper, keeping Butler alive.
Holtmann has impressed me whenever I've interacted with him, whether it was in person or on the phone. He's a smart, thoughtful guy and isn't afraid to get into the weeds of a discussion on a team's transition defense or pick and roll offense. He seems like a great fit at Butler. It certainly doesn't hurt that he has a 70.1% winning percentage as the head coach of the Bulldogs and has taken Butler to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, something last accomplished by Stevens. In fact, back-to-back NCAA Tournaments has only been accomplished by the same coach one other time in Butler history and it was current Athletic Director Barry Collier in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
Butler basketball has a long and, more recently, storied history of success. Holtmann has been entrusted to take this program to new heights in a major college basketball conference and he's doing it well. With the losses of Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham this wasn't supposed to be a season that Butler would be ranked 16th in the AP poll. But that happened. Win or lose on Saturday against Indiana, Butler is a strong program in a strong league and Holtmann is a big reason why.